Book review: Vinegar Hill, by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin PIC: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

That some novelists write poetry and some poets novels is pretty obvious; but whether they display the same degree of accomplishment in both forms is less certain. One can think of writers like DH Lawrence or George Mackay Brown or Sophie Hannah where it would be difficult to label them one or the other. There are what might be considered “occasional” poets, and likewise certain poets who, out of love of form, curiosity, or economic necessity, might look enviously at the advances commanded by prose. It is with these thoughts that I approached the first collection of poems by Colm Tóibín. He’s a terrific novelist, having recently and deservedly won the Goldsmith’s Prize for The Magician and been shortlisted for the Booker several times (including the year I was a judge). Even before the book arrived, I was thinking about what kind of poet Tóibín could be. What are the influences? Who are the precursors? Given that The Magician dealt with novelist Thomas Mann, and previously The Master was about Henry James, what titular spirits would hover over it?

I thought to myself, I bet Auden and Heaney are in the background. Sure enough, in the second poem, “In Los Angeles”, we read “about suffering, of course, / They were never wrong”, although Auden’s quote is undermined by “But none of us ‘imagined…’ Other poems have a vague poetic Beat Sentiment, or Frank O’Hara’s recklessness. I’ve read the book twice and can say there are poems, if not lines, that will stick with me.

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Tóibín’s poetry is, I think, best characterized as understated. There are few verbal fireworks or grammatical surprises; and it seems that he knows it himself. In a poem, “Life”, he imagines a meeting between Gerard Manley Hopkins and the painter Jack Yeats. Hopkins is “thrice-English in Ireland, a convert / To the Roman church, a poet who goes unprinted” and is aware that his words are “knotted” and his “words / Are tortured and contrived”. Not so here. The prevailing atmosphere is one of lucidity. That’s not to say there aren’t linguistic and rhetorical flourishes. The opening poem, for example, which takes place during the lockdown, is about “time after time / What will the world be like when the world / is over” and an acquaintance met on the street has “a tearful eye for a tearful moment”. This poem, “September”, also has a frequent device, where the end of the poem features an inversion of tone or aspect, in this case the old man saying “Someone told me you were dead” . This falling note is very reminiscent of Philip Larkin. In “High Up”, an elegy, the brightness of the headlights “barely / Counts against the force of things / And then it counts more than we suppose”.

Vinegar Hill, by Colm Toibin

Some poems are similar to very bare short stories. In particular, “The Nun” draws the line between farce and bewilderment particularly well. “Dublin: Saturday May 23, 2015” takes place in the wake of the Irish vote for same-sex marriage and features two anonymous, slightly older characters who evoke the life of homosexuals in the past: saunas, clubs, ephemeral encounters, filmed through with a kind of melancholy for repression: “’We could get noticed’, they said, / For not being gay enough”. In addition to sexuality and meditations on art, there are a number of religious poems, ranging from the quietly regretful as in “Bishops” – “No Bishop / Could image who / was coming next”, to almost bawdy in “Vatican II” and the confusion caused by the fact that nuns are allowed to drive. It is a gift to be sympathetic and critical, exemplified in the poem “Kennedy in Wexford”, with its telling lines “I believe that if people had been asked to choose between / A dead bishop and a living president, they would have opted for / The last”. The quality of observation, so essential to both short stories and poems, is best exemplified in an anecdotal poem about how staff “encourage” guests to leave for White House functions, which nevertheless puts some sharp sides in fun. Vinegar Hill is a good volume, although I look forward to Tóibín’s next novel.

By chance another book by Carcanet came to me: Les Cahiers de Lascaux, translated by Philip Terry from a manuscript by Jean-Luc Champerret. It is claimed that he deciphered the abstract petroglyphs in the caves of Lascaux, and it is the first poetry of the “ice age”. The intro claims Champerret was a Resistance code breaker, and I thought, shoot the other one, he’s got bells. Still, it’s a fascinating and intelligent book – a fantasy of deciphering, of coding, of what can be done within limits and a limited vocabulary. It’s an ingenious puzzle though the backstory is more beyond the puddings: I like my convincing pranks. It was only by looking absentmindedly over my bookshelves that I saw that Le Livre des Penguins de l’Oulipo – the French movement with such playful charms – was edited by Philip Terry. But well done! I’ve never read anything like it, and that’s more than enough.

Vinegar Hill, by Colm Tóibín, Carcanet, £12.99

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